Waiting Without Expectation

Waiting Without Expectations

The Rev. Amy Spagna

December 11, 2016 - Advent 3A

Matthew 11:2-11

 

Have you noticed how impatient people are these days? We hate waiting for anything, whether it’s for the mail, or for food to be cooked, or for Christmas to hurry up and come. When we want something, we want it yesterday, and sometimes will stop at nothing, including going into large amounts of debt and/or hurting other people, in order to get it.  I confess to disliking sitting around and twiddling my thumbs, while just waiting for something to happen, as much as anyone else does. I don’t know what’s worse, the nervous going through all the possible things that could go wrong, or the jittery, rocking-back-and-forth-and-then-pacing-a-hole-in-the-carpet excitement over expecting something big and wonderful to happen. And if whatever – or whoever – it is turns out not to be what I was expecting when or if it finally arrives, well, it’s disappointing. And I don’t always deal with it well. Sometimes I rationalize it away: “Oh, that’s okay, I didn’t really want it that badly anyway.” And sometimes, in criticizing both the outcome and myself for wanting too much, I act like one of the kids from A Charlie Brown Christmas. They only grudgingly give Charlie Brown a chance to prove he’s able to do something right when they send him out to get a tree for the Christmas play. So when he comes back to rehearsal with a poor little pine tree, instead of the shiny aluminum one they wanted, they spare him no grief: “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown. Can’t you tell a good tree from a bad one?”[1]

We hear the same brand of disillusionment in the words of John the Baptist’s followers this morning. A lot has happened since we last saw John, baptizing and preaching to the crowds on the banks of the Jordan River. John is cooling his heels in jail, for what Luke’s Gospel tells us is the crime of speaking out against King Herod’s marriage to his half-brother’s ex-wife. Jesus has also been busy. He’s gone off into the wilderness for 40 days, been tempted by the devil, fed 5000 people, preached a lot of sermons, healed the sick, and sent out the disciples on mission trips. All of this all fine and good, but none of it is in line with John’s warning about someone who is coming to separate out and destroy those who refuse to change their sinful ways.  That prediction and Jesus’ actions do not appear to be more different, so it’s little wonder that John seems to be so upset. At the heart of his disappointment is a need to know that Jesus is the real deal, and thus worth the price he is paying for proclaiming his arrival. His visitors haven’t been able to tell him otherwise. However, instead of calling Jesus a blockhead as Lucy would’ve called Charlie Brown, at the first chance he gets, he sends some of his friends to give Jesus the what-for: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Clearly Jesus is not the guy about whom John thought he was preaching. Sure, Jesus has had a lot to say about what the Kingdom of God is like in the early stages of his public ministry. But instead of visiting fiery judgment on those whom John deemed unworthy, Jesus has been doing something else to show the world who he is. The blind have received their sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, the poor have had good news brought to them. Jesus’ works ARE his words, as St. Augustine put it.[2] By them, anyone who happens to be watching will know that Jesus is in fact who he says he is.

Even if he’s able to take Jesus at his word, John’s skepticism is warranted. He has paid dearly for his willingness to tell people to repent because God’s anointed One has arrived. And yet, his experience of Jesus has not, so far, measured up to his expectations. He seems to have hoped Jesus’ very presence would drastically change the world in an instant. Yet things are still the same as ever. To put it another way, what John saw in Jesus was the embodiment of all of God’s promises to Israel. And now, sitting alone in a dank prison cell and with only a handful of his closest friends to tell him what’s going on in the outside world, he is still waiting for that promise to be kept.[3]

John’s disappointment is readily apparent in the message he has for Jesus. Instead of the one who was to destroy anyone who didn’t bear fruit worthy of repentance, what he’s got is a nonviolent champion of the down and out. John does not understand just how badly he has gone wrong, and so he goes straight to the source to demand an explanation. Like Charlie Brown, his frustration has reached a boiling point. And so he’s left with little else to do besides yell into a nearly empty school auditorium, “Can ANYONE tell me what this is all about!?”  

It is probably safe to assume that John was more than a little shocked when Jesus didn’t measure up to his expectations. It’s turned John’s ideas about his own place in the world, and about God, upside-down, to the point where John feels threatened by more than just the rats lurking in the shadows of his cell. The disruption to his sense of who he is, is something with which we also can identify – and, like John, we don’t like it one bit. It is not fun to discover that we’re suddenly vulnerable and can’t do it all ourselves, or that what we have come to expect from life in general is not the case any longer. Acknowledging it publicly makes us seem weak in a culture where that kind of vulnerability is not valued at all. Regardless of whether we do so publicly or not, having our proverbial apple carts upset leaves us to ask if what we took as THE thing to put all our stock into is really “it” after all. If we’re lucky, we’ll have someone like Jesus who can reassure us that things will turn out OK. If we’re not, we run the very real risk of descending into a state of despair and self-loathing, and doing harm to ourselves or others in the process of trying to find the way out of it.   

The good news is, we can avoid falling down that particular rabbit hole. We can ask the hard questions, like John’s messengers do. We can also take the answer Jesus gives us – that he is the one we’ve been waiting for - at face value. That’s where faith comes into play, as does our willingness to own those questions in the first place. Those questions don’t make us weak and vulnerable – far from it. In her 2012 book Daring Greatly, researcher Brené Brown reminds her readers that, “[Vulnerability] is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves… is a measure of our own fear and disconnection.”[4]

Landing in prison has transformed John the Baptist from a fired-up, self-assured prophet into a man who acts from a place of fear and disconnection. By reminding him of all the good he has already done, Jesus is trying to tell him that it does not have to be this way. What’s more, Jesus tells his hearers that John does possess an incredibly deep sense of courage and clarity of conviction. He’s put his own neck on the line to make the path straight for the one even greater than he. He would not have done so if he was not absolutely convinced that Jesus is everything John says he is. Matthew does not tell us how John reacted to his friends’ delivering this message to him. It’s not hard to imagine that their words would have given him a great deal to think about. And maybe, just maybe, they were enough to remind John not only of his own strength, but also to re-light the fire which had landed him in prison in the first place. This Jesus may not be the political avenger-type of messiah so many people had hoped and prayed for. What he has done is to reconnect us with the hungry, the poor, the blind, the lame, and anyone else for whom God’s justice in this world is lacking. And blessed are those who take no offense at him.

 

[1] A Charlie Brown Christmas. 2009. Blu-Ray Disc. Burbank, California: Warner Home Video.

[2] St. Augustine, Sermon on the Mount; Harmony of the Gospels; Homilies on the Gospels: Sermon XVI. http://www.ccel.org/schaff/npnf106.vii.xviii.html [accessed December 5, 2016].

[3] David Lose, “Disappointed with God at Christmastime.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2911 [accessed December 5, 2016].

[4] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Avery Books, 2012), 2.